Botany is supposed to be a very modern science, and to most people Humboldt’s expression that he found in Albertus Magnus’s writings some “exceedingly acute remarks on the organic structure and physiology of plants,” will come as an supreme surprise. A few details with regard to Albert’s botanical knowledge, however, will serve to heighten that surprise, and to show that the foolish tirades of modern sciolists, who have often expressed their wonder that with all the beauties of nature around them these scholars of the Middle Ages did not devote themselves to nature study, are absurd; because if the critics but knew it, there was profound interest in nature and all her manifestations, and a series of discoveries that anticipated not a little of what we consider most important in our modern science. The story of Albert’s botanical knowledge has been told in a single very full paragraph by his biographer. Sighart also quotes an appreciative opinion from a modern German botanist, which will serve to dispel any doubts with regard to Albert’s position in botany that modern students might perhaps continue to harbor, unless they had good authority to support their opinion, though, of course, it will be remembered that the main difference between the medieval and the modern mind is only too often said to be that the medieval required an authority, while the modern makes its opinion for itself. Even the most skeptical of modern minds, however, will probably be satisfied by the following paragraph:

“He was acquainted with the sleep of plants, with the periodical opening and closing of blossoms, with the diminution of sap through evaporation from the cuticle of the leaves, and with the influence of the distribution of the bundles of vessels on the folial indentations. His minute observations on the forms and variety of plants intimate an exquisite sense of floral beauty. He distinguished the star from the bell-floral, tells us that a red rose will turn white when submitted to the vapor of sulphur, and makes some very sagacious observations on the subject of germination. . . . The extraordinary erudition and originality of this treatise (his tenth book) has drawn from M. Meyer the following comment: ‘No botanist who lived before Albert can be compared to him, unless Theophrastus, with whom he was not acquainted; and after him none has painted nature in such living colors or studied it so profoundly until the time of Conrad Gesner and Caesalpino.’ All honor, then, to the man who made such astonishing progress in the science of nature as to find no one, I will not say to surpass, but even to equal him for the space of three centuries.”

James J. Walsh, The Popes and Science (1908)


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